The cost of crime

Richard Garside
Saturday, 5 June 2010

At his creepy press conference with Nick Clegg the day after he finally jostled his way into Downing Street, David Cameron spoke of the ‘difficult times’ that lay ahead as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition dealt with a ‘terrible economic inheritance’. The public finances, his newly appointed deputy added, were ‘in a mess’. Hot on their heels the new Chancellor George Osborne has launched a new Office of Budget Responsibility and has accused the Labour administration of being ‘totally irresponsible’ with the nation’s finances.

The new occupants of Downing Street were never going to be dispassionate commentators on Gordon Brown’s government. But whatever the truth of their comments on Labour’s economic stewardship, a decade of cuts and austerity is what everyone is now expecting. So as the Treasury scouts about for budgets to cut, what are the prospects for that mishmash of services – the police, the probation and prison service, the courts – that collectively make up the criminal justice system?

Criminal justice expenditure is spread across various departments of state under the rather Orwellian-sounding ‘public order and safety’ category. In 2007-08, according to Treasury figures, the UK spent £31.4 billion on public order and safety. The biggest spending departments were the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (£15.5 and £9 billion respectively), followed by the Department for Communities and Local Government (£2.5 billion); the Scottish Office (£2.2 billion) and the Northern Ireland Office (£1 billion). Other departments spending smaller amounts were Children, Schools and Families, Transport, the Law Officers’ Department, the Welsh Office and the Northern Ireland Executive.

This is big money by any standards and a big increase on earlier times. Adjusted for inflation spending on public order and safety has doubled over the past twenty years. Margaret Thatcher’s government was ‘only’ spending an inflation adjusted £15.6 billion on public order and safety in 1987-88, a figure that rose to £21.1 in 1996-97, the eve of Labour’s long period in office.

It is not difficult to see where a lot of this money has gone. Take the police for instance. In 1998 there were just shy of 125,000 police officers in England and Wales. Police numbers dropped during Labour’s first term as budgets were squeezed. But from 2001 the financial spigot was opened and the money gushed out. As a recent report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies points out, in the ten years between 1999 and 2009 police budgets rose, in real terms, by nearly 50 percent. By 2009 the overall police budget was £14.5 billion. Police numbers correspondingly increased to close to 142,000 police officers in that year.

The story is similar for the prison and probation services. Both have witnessed large budget rises under Labour, with a corresponding rise in staffing, prisoners and individuals under probation supervision. At a time of supposedly falling crime rates prison numbers are at a record high. The probation service caseload has grown even faster. This bloated criminal justice bureaucracy is a key part of the legacy the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has inherited from Labour.

That is not to say that criminal justice staff are kicking their heels in happy indolence, the lucky beneficiaries of government largesse. The demands on front-line staff time, if anything, are greater now than they were back in the late 1990s. Some of the extra spending has been squandered on wasteful reorganisation after reorganisation, ill-thought-out and expensive IT projects and other ‘innovations’. Managerial grades have also grown in some areas, often with little obvious rationale. And now David Cameron’s coalition needs to find big savings on public spending.

On the face of it criminal justice should be one of the easier targets for public spending cuts. Politically the public will feel cuts in schools or hospitals, social security or public transport much more than they will cuts to criminal justice budgets.

Today’s sizeable criminal justice system is also something of an historical anomaly. At more than 85,000 inmates, the prison population in England and Wales is close to double what it was twenty years earlier. The previous Conservative governments managed to get by locking up far fewer people than New Labour felt it necessary to do. There are around 20,000 more police officers now than when the previous Conservative government left office in 1997. But to what effect? Labour claimed in office that record police numbers and prison numbers were behind the falling crime rates. But in truth there is no clear link between levels of crime and particular criminal justice processes and metrics. Indeed it is quite conceivable that the official crime rate would have fallen during Labour’s period in office regardless of their various criminal justice reforms.

Yet you only have to state the case for big cuts in police numbers or a halving of the prison population to realise how remote such a prospect currently is. For one thing individuals’ livelihoods are at stake. The Westminster policy wonks who blithely call for ‘efficiency savings’ here and spending cuts there tend to forget that they are calling for people to be put out of work. And while this is inherent in any discussion over cuts, one should reflect carefully before advocating big cuts too enthusiastically.

But more importantly, public order and safety expenditure is not, fundamentally, about tackling ‘crime’, at least not in the abstract sense of that proposition. If, as Max Weber argued, the state claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of order, the criminal justice process is the embodiment of that claim. Particularly at a time of economic distress, the maintenance of social order becomes a dominant concern for government. The nature and size of penal regimes is also closely related to the political economic arrangements of any given society. The United Kingdom has developed a large criminal justice system, in other words, because it is so bad at addressing social distress and dysfunction in other, more inclusive, ways.

In short, the current economic crisis does offer a great opportunity for radical reductions in public order and safety expenditure. But it is likely to be one that the new government will miss.